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Two forensic bills

Texas has thousands of untested rape kits in it, and a bill to try to make something happen with them.

The bill, by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would require a police department to submit a rape kit to a crime lab within at least 10 days, and complete the DNA analysis no later than 90 days after the sexual assault was reported. After testing, the Texas Department of Public Safety would compare the DNA profile to those already in databases maintained by the state and the FBI. To address the “backlog of evidence,” the bill requires — only to the extent that funding is available — that all untested rape kits from active cases since 1996 be tested by 2014.

According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio alone have more than 22,000 untested rape kits.

[…]

DPS estimates it would cost Texas more than $11 million to outsource testing to crime labs with enough personnel to process all of the rape kits.

“It would be a tremendous unfunded mandate on our department,” Jim Jones, a sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, told the committee. Departments don’t typically test rape kits when the suspect is known to the victim, because DNA testing only shows that a sex act occurred. It can’t determine whether the act was consensual, Jones said. If a suspect is convicted, their DNA profile will be compared to state and FBI DNA databases anyway, Jones said, leaving little reason for the department to incur the cost of testing the rape kit.

And 10 days isn’t necessarily enough time to determine whether a sexual assault actually occurred, Jones said. Submitting rape kits prematurely for testing — at about $1,000 each — would burden the state and local departments with undue costs.

Davis said she is willing to change the bill to give police more time for investigation, but the cost shouldn’t be an issue for local police departments. The bill doesn’t mandate testing, she said. It only requires testing if there are adequate financial resources and personnel. But she hopes the legislation will encourage city councils to appropriate funding to address the backlog.

The bill in question is SB1636. I don’t know how much effect this will have in the absence of an assured funding source. Frankly, the cost for this isn’t very much to potentially clear a bunch of violent crimes, but that isn’t in the cards. For reasons unclear to me, this isn’t enough of a priority to merit an appropriation.

The Senate is also pondering broadening the scope of the Forensic Science Commission.

Senate Bill 1658 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa would greatly expand the commission’s authority to investigate botched forensic evidence. The bill makes clear that the commission could investigate allegations of wrongdoing in any field of forensic science. (Some critics of the commission have argued that current law allows the commission to oversee only accredited crime labs. The commission is waiting for the Texas Attorney General to issue an opinion on these jurisdiction issues. The bill would clarify that dispute.)

The bill would also allow the commissioners to launch an inquiry on their own. As it stands now, the commission can investigate a case only if someone has filed a complaint. The provision, which would greatly expand the commission’s authority, drew criticism from Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, at [Tuesday’s] hearing. She said she might oppose the bill if that provision remained. Hinojosa said he’d try to convince her over the next few days why the commission needed such power. “Good luck,” quipped Sen. John Whitmire.

Huffman wasn’t the only senator who had concerns. Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis questioned Hinojosa extensively. Ellis was suspicious of a provision that folds the commission into the Department of Public Safety. The governor’s office has tried in past sessions to house the commission within DPS—an idea Ellis and other supporters of the commission have successfully resisted. They want to maintain the commission’s independence, especially to investigate DPS crime labs.

Hinojosa assured Ellis that DPS would provide only administrative support for the commission and wouldn’t have any influence over which cases the commissioners look into—to “avoid a conflict of interest.”

This is more or less how I envisioned the Forensic Science Commission working when it was first created, and the expressed concerns aside I daresay it’s closer to what the Senate envisioned for it at the time. There’s plenty of stuff for them to look into and hopefully correct if they’re given the chance. As long as they can get a Chair that is interested in the truth and not in covering Rick Perry’s backside, I’d like to see them get it. Grits has more.

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